Mark May Interview by Abby Owen

Posted on 2/13/2010 by Abby Owen

(Houston, TX) The following is the first half of an interview with Mark May, original Blues Artist and leader of the long enduring, well-liked and much-respected Houston based Blues/Rock band called appropriately, Mark May Band.
In the Part One we will learn about Mark's humble beginnings and family bonds and inspiration. It will begin to explore Mark's musical history with an exclusive look into his close friendship with Dickey Betts and his ties with the Allman Brothers Band. In Part Two we will hear about the day Mark auditioned for The Allman Brothers Band, and his feelings at losing that prize to, in Mark's own humble words, "A fantastic guitarist", and then on to what he and the band are doing now, and his new release, "In Texas Live" with his current label 'Flyin Dog Records'. The CD is a rousing collection of live performances which spotlights the current band members, (L to R) Dan Cooper(bass), Paul Ramirez(guitar) and Clyde Dempsey(drums), in addition to former guitarists including Kirk McKim, Kenny Cordray, and Matt Johnson. This cd finally gives the people a taste of what the band's live show is all about, and you haven't witnessed Mark May Band unless you've seen them LIVE! And now for the story...

AO: You say your mother was a songwriter, and for those who didn’t know the song you wrote called ‘Joann’ was written for her. Do you think music has changed at all from your mother’s time, and if so in what way?

MM: In general, music is something that whether or not it changes styles, it’s really just your feelings about different subjects. I wrote that song ‘Joann’ about her, although many people don’t know it’s about her, because I wrote it in a style that…well, to make it a little slicker than a song a man wrote about his mother. I tried to make it sound more like a cool Blues song, but if you listen to the words you can figure it out. It says “I’m you’re man,” but really I was her boy.

AO: The man of the house.

MM: Well, I was a man when I wrote it, I wasn’t a kid. (laughs) But, uh…She grew up in Kentucky, and grew up with the influence of the Church and Bluegrass, mainly. Gospel, and bluegrass pretty much. So I got all the Rock influences and Blues from my brother Ken. He’s 12 years older than me, so quite a bit ahead of me in music and stuff.

AO: So he turned you on to it?

MM: Yeah. She [mom] turned me on to Country stuff like George Jones, Bill Monroe and all the Bluegrass stuff, and he [brother] turned me on to the Beatles and Hendrix. So I kinda got it from both sides. My uncle played fiddle and, like many Bluegrass guys, other things like mandolin, guitar and a bunch of different instruments. Banjo. He played with a lot of the big-time Bluegrass guys in Kentucky. A lot of his music influenced her. She liked that kind of stuff. And she liked people like George Jones, Lorretta Lynn, Tammy Wynette and later on Dolly Parton and Barbara Mandrell. Just whatever was popular. Some newer music, but a lot of the standards. I used to go stay with my aunt and uncle, because they lived close, and my aunt had a record collection. She had a BB King album “Live In Cook County Jail”. And she used to say, you learn to play like BB King and I’ll come see you play! She really liked BB King, and I sort of just latched on to that album. It was probably the first real Blues album that I listened to.
AO: I’ve heard other Blues artists mention that particular album as being his best.

MM: I think that one, and “Live At The Regal” is another real popular one. It’s a really cool album. Then of course Hendrix did a lot of stuff that was Blues. He grew up playing the circuit, and a lot of the stuff he did was just amplified Blues, through a Marshall and a Stratocaster, y’know? And all the stuff he played when he did King Curtis, all the different people he played with like Isley Bros, Little Richard. So that basically got me started doin that. I started playing a bit more Rock stuff. Whatever was popular back then, like Rick Derringer, Aerosmith, Pat Travers y’know…guitar player bands. We had a family band at one point. But that was later on. First we, my brother and I played a high school dance when I was like, in eighth grade. Just me and him. He played bass, I played guitar. He may have played guitar too. We played three songs. We played ‘Wild Thing’, ‘The Thrill Is Gone’, and ‘Come On Part One’. That was one of my first live gigs. We played around with a little band and we did a few gigs with a guy named Jack Willis, me and my brother. Then I got into a band called ‘Diamonds & Rust’, when I was about 16.

AO: This was in Ohio?

MM: Yeah, in Ohio. Columbus & Newark. The Diamonds & Rust Band was kind of a strange band. The guy who was the lead singer was an Elvis impersonator. We did an Elvis show, but we also did a lot of the Rock stuff that was popular at the time. Rolling Stones' ‘Some Girls’, ‘My Sharona’, just whatever was popular y’know?

AO: Two bands for the price of one.

MM: Yeah. He had a good voice. It wasn’t real high, so we picked out stuff he could sing. We all had outfits we wore. It was a cool band I guess. Then I got into a County/Rock band called ‘McCoy’. We did a lot of Southern Rock stuff. Stuff like 'Willin' by Little Feat, stuff by The Allman Brothers, Fleetwood Mac, but it was like a real Southern kind of sound…acoustic guitars, eventhough we weren’t really an acoustic band. The lead singer was Ron Ferguson and his brother played bass…Randy. It was a pretty cool band. We were the house band at some club out in Newark called ‘The Stein’. Then it was after that when we started our family thing. We did a lot of Country stuff. To back up though, it was about that time that I played some with my brother, when he moved out to California, and I went out too for about 6 – 8 months and played with a guy named Tony Vice, in a County band. "Tony Vice and the Hollywood Cowboys".

AO: This was in Southern California?

MM: Uh huh. It was right when I graduated from High School, in Los Angeles. We lived right in Hollywood, on Hollywood Blvd. We played some gigs out there. You know most Country bands do Rock too, obviously, these days. I didn’t stay out there a real long time though. I came back when my brother moved back, and we did the ‘May Family Band’ thing. Then he moved to Texas, and then I moved to Texas.

AO: It was your brother's idea?

MM: Well, it was his wife Cheryl’s…she’s from here. She wanted to move back and he came down, and then I followed not too long after, and I’ve been here ever since. When I came down here I played in some Country bands, me and my brother played in some bands, then he kind of stopped playing, and I was still doing these Country bands. Then I started doing this Hard Rock thing. It [the band] had two different names. First it was called ‘Dactyl’ like Pteradactyl, then we changed it to ‘Mirror’. We had a really good lead singer, and he could sing all the really high stuff, Hard Rock stuff like Led Zeppelin, Van Halen, Bon Jovi…even Queensryche and stuff like that. We just played local clubs, never really went anywhere, then he moved off to Sacremento because Tesla’s manager liked him. So, I think it was about that time that I started hosting the ‘Monday Night Blues Jam’ in a place in Seabrook TX called ‘The Crew's Quarters’.

AO: Yeah, I have read that in your Bio.

MM: Yeah. That was when, we were doing a lot of Blues and Blues/Rock down there, and I realised that I felt really comfortable playing it, and people liked the way I played it, and then a buddy turned me on to Albert Collins. He gave me an Albert Collins tape, and I really liked it. That was when I got really hooked on the whole Blues thing, at that point. On the side, while doing the Country band, I started putting together…at first I just started putting Blues songs into the sets while we were still doing Country and nobody minded if you did a little Stevie Ray Vaughan or T-Bone Shuffle as long as you played mostly what they liked. So that’s when I got the bug for it and finally put a Blues Band together in, I guess it was 1991 or ’92…me and Dan [Cooper]. We just had a four piece band with Danny Goza & Dave Nevling the harp player. We put together the album, ‘Call On The Blues’, featuring special guests Joe Guitar Hughes and Eric Demmer (sax))and we put it out on cassette tape locally, sent it out to some record companies, and I got a bite back from Johnny Phillips from Icehouse [Records], and he re-mixed it.

AO: So you had basically already done the album before getting ‘Icehouse’ on board?

MM: Pretty much, I mean they did a few things to it. When we re-mixed it they added some things like hand clapping and rhythm guitars, but mostly it was just re-mixed. They released it in 1995 on ‘Icehouse Records’ label out of Memphis. And Johnny is the nephew of Sam Phillips that had ‘Sun Records’. He’s got a pretty big distribution company called 'Select-O-Hits' up in Memphis. So he already had a distribution company to distribute his own records which was convenient for him, but he also got hooked up with a Rap label ‘Priority’, because he was distributing a lot of their stuff for them, and they made some kind of deal where they would use all of Priority’s distribution to distribute his Blues label. So we were all over in the stores right away, which was a good break for us, because it’s hard to get Blues records into the stores, but if you have a big name like ‘Priority Records’ on your side, its like an almost automatic thing where you can get stuff in. So that was a pretty good break for us. We did two CDs with them, ‘Call On The Blues’ and ‘Telephone Road’. Billy Wells and Greg Grubbs joined the band for the second CD which also featured special guests Larry McCray, Eric Demmer (Clarence Gatemouth Brown), Alan Haynes, Memphis Horns & Travis Doyle. Then we went to more of a two-guitar format, instead of a harmonica-guitar, and did the Blues/Rock thing.

AO: *Note* - In 1999 May was dubbed 'Houston Press' Local Musician of the Year.

MM: We have had some extremely gifted guitar players. Some of them include Kenny Cordray,(co-wrote ‘Francine’ recorded by ZZ Top), Matt Johnson, John Calderon (Al Jarreau) & Kirk McKim (Pat Travers Band). We’ve gone through about ten different guitar players. Dan’s been the bass player the whole time, and we’ve probably had about 3 - 4 drummers thoughout the band. After ‘Telephone Road’ we struck up a relationship with Jim Gayle, a local guy, who had managed a Bluegrass band and had got them on ‘Austin City Limits’. He took guitar lessons from me. He was an Oil & Gas guy, and he decided to start a record label and started managing us. In 2003 we came out with ‘Dollmaker’ with him, featuring guitarist/vocalist John Zuliger "JZ", along with special guests Dickey Betts, Jr. Ortiz and Skip Nallia.
In between that time, actually about the same time as ‘Telephone Road’ came out, we were playing down in Sarasota FL, and I had a couple of friends who would come see us religiously when we were in that area, and this one guy owned a golf shop with his dad, and Dickey Betts from the Allman Brothers Band started to shop there, and they got to be friends, going out to lunch, playing golf together, and he kept telling Dickey he wanted him to hear our CD, and finally gave Dickey a copy of it. Dickey just threw it in the glovebox of his Lexus and never really listened to it, until he got tired of Jimmy bugging him about it, so he finally put it in so he’d leave him alone…and he really liked it. He liked the fact that I played a lot like Albert Collins, and he thought my voice sounded a lot like Freddie King’s which is hard to believe, but y’know, I’m glad he thought that. So he decided he wanted to try and help us out. He didn’t listen to a lot of new music. He listened to John Coltrain, Charlie Parker, Billy Joe Shaver… y’know people like that, that he admired…some Jazz guys. So we just kinda lucked out that he liked it, and then he asked us if we’d like to do some dates with the Allman Brothers! I couldn’t believe it. It was just out of nowhere. He wanted to see us play live first, so we went out to Sarasota and played at the ‘Five-O-Clock’ club, and Dickey came out and watched us. So the places [cities] where they didn’t need extra support, where they didn’t need help to draw a big crowd or places where they were sold out already, they put us on as the opener for the ampitheater tour in 1997, and we probably did about fifteen dates with them.

Continued in Part Two...
Look for my next posting, Saturday March 13th for the rest of the scoop!
But in the meantime, you can check out the Live CD at DigStation, for the previous CDs check out the offers Mark May Store, and if you just want to give a listen, check out the streaming previous songs, shows & news at ReverbNation/markmayband or for more photos and blogs try

Copyright © 2010 Abby Owen. All Rights Reserved.
Photos courtesy of Mark May Band, Abby Owen, Brian Smith Copyright © 2010
All Rights Reserved.

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